Bryan Caplan  

Page One of My Next Book

Borjas, Wages, and Immigration... The Education of Educators...

I've started writing my next book, tentatively entitled The Case Against Education: A Professional Student Explains Why Our Education System is a Big Waste of Time and Money. Here's page one:

I have been in school continuously for the last thirty two years. First pre-school, kindergarten, elementary, junior high, and high school. Then a four-year bachelor degree at UC Berkeley, followed by four years in a Ph.D. program at Princeton. This was immediately followed by what you could call my "first real job" – as a professor of economics at George Mason University. Ten years later, I'm still here.

The system has been good to me. Very good. I have a dream job for life. I am expected to teach six hours of class, thirty weeks per year. Unlike many professors, I love teaching; but even if I did not, 180 hours a year would be a light burden to bear. The rest of the time, I think, read, and write about whatever interests me. That's called "research." My salary does not make me wealthy, but I wouldn't trade places with Bill Gates. I figure that Gates' billions couldn't buy me anything that I want that I don't already have. And I bet that even in "retirement," Gates has a lot of stress.

Personally, then, I have no reason to lash out at the education system. Quite the contrary. But three decades of experience, combined with two decades of reading and reflection, have convinced me that our educational system is a big waste of time and money. Practically every politician vows to spend more on education, and as an insider, I can't helping asking "Why? Do you want us to waste even more?"

Most people who criticize our education system complain that we aren't spending our money in the right way, or that ideologues-in-teachers'-clothes are leading our nation's children down a dark path. While I mildly sympathize with some of these complaints, they often contradict what I see as the real problem with our educational system: There's simply far too much education going on. The typical student burns up thousands of hours of his time learning about things that neither raise his productivity nor enrich his life. And of course, a student can't waste thousands of hours of his time without real estate to do it in, or experts to show him how.

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The author at Adam Smith Institute Blog in a related article titled Blog Review 170 writes:
    Both EU Referendum and RealClearPolitics point to the true but little understood fact that regulations to make us safer can make us less safe. Bag spots a quango making waste with our money. Used tea bags are apparently defined as food thrown away. Wat... [Tracked on March 17, 2007 6:53 AM]
The author at Modeled Behavior in a related article titled Why Are We Teaching These Kids? writes:
    The first page from Byran Caplan's new book summarizes a position he is stated many times about education - that it is mostly a waste of time. There are several points I'd like to make relating to the economics of Bryan's assertion and how he arrived... [Tracked on March 18, 2007 1:45 PM]
COMMENTS (42 to date)
Buzzcut writes:


dearieme writes:

'fraid so.

Matt writes:

Are you available to come to my town's finance committee meeting? The school budget is coming up in about a month.

Buzzcut writes:

Think of it in marginal terms.

Are we at the point where a dollar more in educational costs brings less than a dollar in benefits?

And even if the answer is yes, who gets those benefits? The individual being educated, the taxpayer, all of us in general as society?

Maybe if we didn't subsidize education so much, those being educated would take it a little more seriously.

Randy writes:

I like it!

My personal belief is that there is no excuse for a system that allows students to walk away from 12 years of education with no employable skill.

Nacim writes:

Hurry up and finish it. I can't wait to read it.

Ajay writes:

Considering all the enthusiastic readers you have here, may I suggest setting up a website where we can read your drafts and provide feedback and suggestions as you write each chapter? I could help you setup something like this, if you want.

Randomscrub writes:

Looks promising! Now you just have to finish it so I can read the rest (says the soon-to-be graduate student...).

David writes:

Do you intend to market your books to smart-alec high school students?

FMB writes:

Much of what you get exposed to in school has option value -- you can't always tell in advance if it will enrich you or make you more productive, but it could eventually prove very useful. I'm sure some economists knew all along that's what they wanted to do, but it seems like many were done a great favor -- e.g. getting exposed to econ in the first place -- at some point in their lives.

Clearly a certain amount of that activity is worthwhile. How much?

Brad Hutchings writes:

"The typical student burns up thousands of hours of his time learning about things that neither raise his productivity nor enrich his life."

Wide right and a tad short. With the NCLB testing craze being kicking the holder in the hand and the ball into the center's butt. Pardon the football analogy, I've been going through withdrawals since the Rose Bowl...

The purpose of book/school learning should mostly be to instill a process for learning and a curiosity to learn more in students as they go through grade school, middle school, high school, college, and graduate school. Along the way, there are certain facts they'll need and skills they'll need, and if they learn those and learn how to learn, they'll be prepared to make their own successes.

And besides Bryan, how can two parents have two careers and a big house, an Escalade, a Benz, a couple dogs, and a timeshare in Tahoe if there is nowhere to put the kids during the day? ;-)

Dr. T writes:

My credentials: 12 years of medical school teaching and 1 year of college teaching preceded by 27 years of education and training.

I agree that for many persons, much of their education was a waste of time. I felt that way in k-12, but not because of the subject matter. The problems for me were slow pacing and poor teaching. You link education to productivity. I link education to the ability to learn new skills. In medicine, students or physicians who failed to get (or to retain) a good education have greater difficulty learning new skills (because their knowledge foundation is weak). Medicine is such a broad field that many kinds of prior learning are beneficial--even economics! I learned many things in school that do not directly affect my productivity as a physician, but I never considered that learning to be wasted.

I believe that our k-12 and college education systems have many flaws. I also agree that for many persons, less time in a formal education setting would be better. This will require a cultural change (remember the posts last year about the signaling values of high school and college degrees?) throughout society. I'm uncertain about whether the book you are writing will help.

Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

You are a genius among insects. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

Matthew c writes:

Amen, brother!

Nathan Benedict writes:

The idea that a broad-based education is important even though you never use 99% of what you use is a persistent and expensive myth. The only skills you really need in any field are literacy and basic numeracy (probably no higher than arithmetic). Beyond these skills, there's no reason anyone should have to learn anything. The child who wants to spend all his childhood learning music or science or for that matter going to work full time at age 13 should be permitted to do so. As a practical matter, we do allow this for children who are good enough at a particularly specialty to become world-renown in it. Child actors, figure skaters, musicians, etc. are allowed to pursue their vocation full time and receive private tutoring, which I doubt is as intensive as a standard curriculum.

If a child decides to study no history whatsoever, how is she (or anyone else) harmed? Millions of Americans couldn't even tell you what century the Civil War was in or who the first president was, but they lead full productive lives. If, later in life, a knowledge of history becomes important for any reason, there's always a community college available at a reasonable price. Or you can just surf the Internet, or order a lecture series on tape, or buy The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Economist David Friedman has taken this conclusion to its logical extreme: he's unschooling his children (
His blog probably makes a better argument that I just did.

raj yashwant writes:

I totally disagree. Spending time on education may not result in immediate perceived economic benefit, however, there are benefits which cannot be quantified.

For eg. I study strategy and learn, how famous strategians applied various strategy in variety of scenario. I learn from their mistakes and apply it judiciously conciously avoiding those mistakes. Now, i have resulted in productive strategy which resulted in millions of dollars profit for my company. Even if i had given a wrong strategy to the company, the company would have still not blamed me for those mistakes as I would have rationalized my actions.

Education helps in unlearning mistakes of previous generation. Billions of dollars of wealth is created around the world due to education and technology.

Take for example the current U.S economic scenarios, everybody presumes that US will go into recession by the end of the year, but central bank and other economists in the government are working furiously to prevent it. They are able to predict it based on their experience from the past.

Many a recessions have been prevented in the past due to learnings from even previous mistakes resulting in trillions of dollars saved for the economy.

The most important capital or resource in the world is the resource present between the two ears. The the computation of economic value of this capital of all the six billion people around the plant has not been undertaken. I would say that the value of whole world is the result of value of their brains. The other natural resources like mineral, oil etc have zero value without the value of brains.

What is the value of blogging. One might consider it pas-time hobby, however, it has huge economic value as it unleashes creative thinking in multiple readers.

Just because we cannot attribute economic value to an entity it is not worthless. An attempt must be made to value human capital.

John writes:
The typical student burns up thousands of hours of his time learning about things that neither raise his productivity nor enrich his life

I recently heard Abhijit Banerjee claim that the marginal returns to an extra year of education are higher among those who have some college education than among those who have only primary-school education. If that's right, is it a problem for your argument?

I think you've already blogged Ben Jones' work on age and invention, but I can't find any mention of it in the archives. Either way, you can find an abstract at (Shorter abstract: "great innovation is steadily declining among younger thinkers," perhaps because they spend more time in school than their predecessors.)

jp writes:

Bryan -- Your first page certainly has me interested.

I would concede that there's probably too much education just by virtue of the fact that it's subsidized. We don't know what the efficient amount (or content) of education is for a modern, technological society because we haven't experienced an unregulated education market.

Some good arguments for why we might want to provide "wasted" education have been made above. I would add that educating children and teenagers is like investing in a small-cap mutual fund. You know that some small-cap firms will do extremely well, some will do ok, and many will fail. But you can't know in advance which firms will do well and which won't. So you spread your investment dollars over a lot of those firms so that (hopefully) the winners will more than offset the losers, and on net you'll make more than if you hadn't invested in small caps at all. Of course, some screening helps in reaching that goal -- some mutual funds are more successful from the investor's standpoint than others. You don't dump money into any small cap that comes along. Likewise, you don't put every child into AP classes just because parents ask you to. Yet a screening system can also be too conservative, missing the biggest growth by screening out too much risk. Directing children into vocational education may be an example of this.

Anyway, I do want to read more of your book.

Tom West writes:

I have to admit I'm curious about where Bryan takes this. Presumably it means ending state-paid education much earlier (grade 8 perhaps) and then letting parents pay for private schools if they believe that education is worth it. That seems likely to weaken class mobility, which presumably is not a good thing.

If he is only suggesting the option to leave early, then I'm *highly* dubious about letting hormone racked adolescents determine their entire future very early on. Sure one can in theory go back, but precious few ever have that opportunity once they've got a real world life to support. For the vast majority, it's education in childhood or no education.

Acad Ronin writes:

With a PhD and 20+ years of college teaching under my belt, you are giving voice to somethng I have been feeling for some time. I haven't voiced these feelings because I need the hand that feeds me. That said, I remember hearing the "Little House on the Prairie" books on Boston's WGBH, and looking through the McGuffey readers and thinking that the quality of grade school education has declined over the past century. As grade school, middle school, and especially high school declined, they could no longer provide the signal they once did. So then we added college, and now grad school, to provide the same signal that once high school graduation provided. It is all a massive waste.

Daniel writes:


It would be useful if Banerjee could figure out a way to compare the productivity of primary school only completers with the marginal productivity of college graduates As they were educated the year after completing primary school. Otherwise it's silly to compare the two groups, because they are likely to differ in other ways.

Even if the groups don't differ and Banerjee's claim is correct, it would still be consistent with the definition of diminishing marginal returns. Learning shapes and colors is likely to be very productive, reading through Proust less so, no matter what ones ability level.

Daniel writes:

Don't change the title. It's provocative, perhaps enough to get you on the Colbert Report. Colbert can sardonically ask if you played Dungeons and Dragons, and you can admit you did, without a hint of shame.

Seriously, don't change it. :)

PJens writes:

The current educational system can be a waste of time and money, but obviously not for every student. There are many, possibily the majority of students, who the current system serves very well. I say this because when I look at where people are five years out of high school, I don't think they could have gotten to the same position in life without their book learning. I firmly believe and agree that the educational process can be streamlined and taylored for better results.

Two things that I think ought to be changed immediately are sports and same rate progression.

I think sports programs for kids ought to be run as separate clubs. Disconnect the sports from the school.

The long held notion that every child is ready to start school at 5, and go through the program at exactly the same rate, with only minor variations in courses, as every other kid, so graduation from high school is at 18 is rediculious. The first day of school in fall, kids ought to take placement/evaluation tests to see what level they can learn at for the current year. If they need to repeat a grade, fine. If they can handle the next level, or the one above that, great!

Our economy and workforce is evidence that our educational system is working, at least on some level. The program is wide open to improvement though!

paul writes:

Bravo! Finally, an honest academic. And we wonder why economics and finance is so intellectually bankrupt…

Boonton writes:

Perhaps the reason education seems like a waste of time for many students is the same reason prison seems like a waste of time to convicts. It is for them but not for others.

I suspect that a big part of the system for children exists not for their benefit but their parents and everyone else. Imagine for a moment life where education wasn't mandatory. Millions of kids, when their parents are off to work, would roam the streets looking for things to do. The result would be chaos. Don't underestimate the value of education as a massive type of social daycare!

another bob writes:


Does it make more sense now?

Ajay writes:

Even if schooling is merely daycare to keep the kids busy while the parents work (although no credible defender of the current system would actually make this claim) the question has to be raised: what is the best way for kids to spend their time until they're old enough to work? And the answer is, pretty far from the mindless and homogenized busywork they're currently forced to endure. For the commenter who believes that this is adequate preparation for the type of work they will be doing eventually, no employer wants those type of employees, drones who merely push paper. They're forced to accept them because that's what the horrible education system currently cranks out and the employers don't know how to build a better education system.

However, the current system will be destroyed by the information-processing power of the internet and the PC. First, the internet allows ideas about how to build a better system to spread much faster than they would have before. Second, the internet/PC combo brings information power to the masses, power that allows them to upend every existing information industry (as access to an internet-enabled PC costs less than $500/year). It's currently happening to the media industry and will happen to education, medicine, law, anything information-related. This means that new systems, decentralized and built on the internet, can now rise up to demolish the old and broken systems. It's not going to matter whether Bryan writes this book or not, competition enabled by new technology will destroy the current school systems.

another bob writes:

and, also, schooling is an expression of social status by parents with more money than children. again, this has nothing to do with useful education for children.


i spent an evening in a jr high school gym watching working-class single mothers go vein-popping bug-eyed about how our state/city/district (somebody else, anybody other than the mother herself) must do a better job educating their children.

AND, they shrieked even louder that the district must not close down the local jr high (in order to aggregate more children into a single location so that broader education could be offered tailored to the needs and interests of each individual child).

never under estimate the non-linear nature of the results of screaming bug-eyed single mothers with limited information and rationality (and more children than money) shrieking about 'the children'.

Tom West writes:

Ajay, with regards to the Internet replacing schools: you're dreaming in technicolor. Society has been trying variants of this for decades (a good library, the best lectures delivered by television, internet lessons, and onward) and the sorry reality is that for the vast majority of students, if there isn't someone there taking the effort to teach the students, they won't take the effort to learn.

If it wasn't a universal truth, a library and a resource person would be all that's required to get an education. And that's worked for say, 1% of young people... ever.

As for homogenized busywork - that describes 75% of interesting jobs, and 95% of uninteresting jobs. There's a reason that most employers run screaming from people who don't successfully complete schooling.

Alex Forshaw writes:

I totally agree. I have always done 90% of my learning outside the classroom.

I was fortunate to get a highly diversified learning experience in high school. But college? TOTAL waste of time.

Martin writes:

"The typical student burns up thousands of hours of his time learning about things that neither raise his productivity nor enrich his life."

With a six hour week and a 30 week year, who are you to lecture anyone on productivity?

Edmund writes:

I agree.

Don't forget to hyphenate 21 through 99 when writing out.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

However I make the request that children are taught economic history. Like how waves of immigrants were greeted in the U.S. by ignorant racism, yet they ended up making the country's economy stronger and more dynamic. Or the true causes of the Great Depression.

To graduate, students must be able to identify within 10% how much tax money goes to what government spending...including payroll taxes.

will mcbride writes:

My comments at MR:

I'm just not getting all the status bashing amongst you guys (Robin, Bryan,
and Tyler). So what if education is primarily about status? Just about
everything is, e.g. fashion, boob jobs, country clubs, etc. I see education
as just another club, but one that has some nice social benefits. Bryan
has focused soley (as far as I know) on the sorting benefits which accrue
to employers, but there's a lot of other social networking which is
facilitated by knowing one another's intellectual proclivities, background, etc..
And we can't just carry around our favorite books to signal that.

I agree we should get rid of the subsidies, but let's not do more than that.
If education is zero-sum, what is plastic surgery?

Here is more on status and Veblen.

Sean writes:
My salary does not make me wealthy, but I wouldn't trade places with Bill Gates.

This is easy to say, but wait until you are married with kids.

Mike Huben writes:

"In editing a journal that has received manuscripts from virtually every libertarian scholar, famous and unknown alike, I have long been struck by the consistent juxtiposition of... libertarian philosophical sentiments with weak empirical research, leaps of logic, contempt for non-libertarian points of view (of which the authors usually appear ignorant). The polemical tone and deficient evidence, however, and the tarnishing of often-good ideas by doctrinaire rhetoric and low scholarly standards, are only the least of it. The worst thing is not the waste of effort that goes into producing propaganda barely veiled by the robes of scholarship. The greater tragedy is what libertarians could produce, but do not. "
Jeffrey Friedman, "What's Wrong With Libertarianism"

Martin writes:


Thanks for the tip.

Another one for the reading list - although it's hard to see what you can produce during a year of 30 weeks, each week containing six hours.

Greifer writes:

well, i'm married with kids, and i definitely don't want Bill Gates' life. i'd never see my children and be in constant terror of their physical safety being harmed to get at my money.

yes, well, duh, we were stupid. but:

a. for those of us who thought we would be profs, were we not merely mistaken, but actually misled? or were we just not paying attention to the numbers of faculty tenure-track positions out there? I remember being told to expect " a wave of retirements" in my field, a wave which never came, and was never going to be replaced by tenure track positions anyway. did we just poorly compute priors? only with hindsight did i figure out it was personally a waste for me. you, the lottery winner, won. maybe playing the lottery isn't so bad.

b. for those who want to avoid hard work, isn't them being in school better than them being on the dole, or on the street corner drinking? except for women--who might very well be better off married and raising children--isn't school just a better way to institute social mores to young aimless men?

R. S. Porter writes:
This is easy to say, but wait until you are married with kids.
Um, I'm pretty sure he is.
Leah writes:

The first page of your book really caught my attention. And I totally agree with you that there is too much education going on. Students are bombarded with so much knowledge that it becomes difficult to take it all in. With so many classes and requirements to fulfill to graduate, many students begin to just learn the information for a test. I know I've done that before. Throughout elementary school, middle school, high school, and even college, all students have had requirements to take specific classes that are supposedly beneficial for the student. While that may be, most of those classes do not interest the majority of students. Most only take them because they have to; if given the choice they would not. I believe education should be more focused upon the student. That is, students shouldn't have to take some class just because the system commands that they do or they can't graduate. That's a confusing idea, because it seems like students have that freedom now... but I would disagree. All in all, I agree with Mr. Caplan's point and meaning underlying the first page of his book.

Johnna writes:

A quote from Dr. Raymond Moore, a man that has spent many decades in the field of education, "How do you know when your children are learning? It depends on who's asking the questions. If you are asking the questions probably not; if your children are asking the questions, probably so." Unfortunately, we have all spent too many years sitting behind a desk while a teacher has asked us questions and has required that we come up with the answers like a trained circus monkey. Some of us were better trained monkeys then others. As an adult I now have the opportunity to ask the questions and seek the answers. How liberating.

I have a fourteen year old son that has always been homeschooled. You would think that a teenager left to himself would do absolutely nothing with his time. Wrong! I can go into his room at 9:00 at night and find him reading his French book. I handed him the curriculum and he has taught himself. He has spent the last four weeks painting and reading about famous painters. He teaches himself guitar and piano. He creates cartoons and is writing a screen play.

Don't think that a kid needs to be in a classroom with a teacher dumping mindless facts into his head all day to constitute having an education.

Oh yeah, he can also tell you exactly when the Civil War was faught, who the first president was and what year the Declatation of Independence was signed.

adam notsmith writes:

As an economist you should realize that waste is a fundamental necessity in a society operated for business profit. Reread Veblen's Absentee Ownership, which all by itself might easily replace a two year MBA program, a PhD economics program or a three year JD program. Formal education provides nothing guaranteed but an opportunity to hang around a library for a few years without getting arrested. If formally educated people remain mostly ignorant, perhaps time spent in fraternity houses, at football games and groping the underware of classmates is not the same thing.

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